Raising trout along the Truckee River was big business
Echoes From the Past
The American who led the first expedition that discovered the Truckee River was John C. Fremont. His nickname was “The Pathfinder,” and he certainly lived up to that reputation when it came to exploring the West.
He is credited with the first naming of the Truckee River. He found huge native fish, and for these he named it the Salmon Trout River. Later the name of the river was changed to honor the Piute chief known as Truckee.
When the Truckee River area was first settled, the river and its tributaries were full of fish. The Pyramid Lake subspecies of the Lahontan cutthroat trout was the dominant species in the upper river, and was known as the salmon trout.
The fish migrated upriver from Pyramid Lake in Nevada and spawned in the river and its tributaries as far up as Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake. The migration was timed to take advantage of the snowmelt and subsequent runoff each spring and early summer.
The lakes of Tahoe, Fallen Leaf, Donner, and Independence also had a variety of the fish known as silver trout that spawned in the rivers below the outlets each spring. The entire watershed also contained the Cui-ui, a chub that also migrated out of Pyramid Lake. Both fish were the staples of the Native Americans, the Washoe and Piute people.
By 1875, over-fishing, dam construction, river diversions and sawmills that dumped large quantities of sawdust into the Truckee River quickly reduced the native population. The native fish export market had quickly developed, but the seasonal nature of the fish migration soon led entrepreneurs to develop a year round supply of fish. The artificially raised fish soon came to dominate the market. This was accomplished by building fish hatcheries and rearing ponds.
In 1869, the Pioneer Fish Hatchery was developed by James Comer about five miles upriver from Truckee. It was one of the most extensive private fisheries on the West Coast at the time. The trout were taken from the river and local lakes as small fish and spawning females. The fish were raised in both natural and artificial ponds along the river. The fish from this facility was mostly shipped out of the area on the railroad.
In 1871, Comer sold ten million fish. In 1872, The California Fish Commissioners contracted with Comer to raise 50,000 whitefish from eggs that came from the eastern U.S. These fish were released into the Truckee River system, including Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake. The location was near the present day Goose Meadow Campground.
In April of 1873, James Frazier took over the management of the fishery. Frazier would become the leading local expert on raising fish in artificial ponds. By 1874, demand had increased in stocking private ponds in the region with fish, including Nevada. In the fall of 1873, 5,000 trout were shipped in barrels to the Reese River in Central Nevada. Up to one million fish a year were raised. The facility was in operation until the early 1880s.
The operations were not without problems. High waterflows in the Truckee River would occasionally flood the pond closest to the river, freeing thousands of fish. Extremely cold weather in January of 1879, froze the inlet from the river to the ponds and the fish were in danger of suffocating from a lack of oxygen in the water. Predators such as bears, raccoons, eagles and other animals were a threat to the fish. About 25 percent of the tasty fish were lost each year.
In August of 1871 a similar operation was built by John Kelly and James Stewart near Donner Lake. Located on 400 acres at the junction of Donner Creek and Coldstream, the fishery had three natural and three artificial ponds that were fed with constantly cold clear water.
Stewart had no practical experience in fish rearing so he followed the advice of the instructions of the well-known ichthyologist, Seth Green, who wrote a book on fish raising in 1870 while working in the Truckee area. As long as they followed the Green book they were successful.
The first fish were caught from Donner and Coldstream Creeks, later fish were caught at Lake Tahoe and hand carried by Stewart on foot back to the fishery. The 45-degree water was filtered of debris through gravel beds and red flannel cloth. Fish eggs were incubated for 50 to 75 days, fry were hatched, and moved into the small narrow rearing ponds. Fish eggs had to handled with care, as they were very delicate. It took three years to raise the fish to a market weight of one to two pounds.
By April of 1872, they had 22,000 trout in their ponds, of which 12,000 were two year olds. A typical year’s collection of eggs would yield 300,000 spawn. About 150,000 marketable fish would be harvested over the course of a year.
When they started, their largest pond was 600 feet long by 40 feet wide, and another was 200 feet long by 100 feet wide. The average depth of the ponds was ten feet. They soon learned that long narrow ponds were better and divided the ponds lengthwise. In addition to trout they also experimented with salmon, shad, black bass, and perch.
Food for the fish was naturally provided in the bottom of the ponds and by native insects. A mush was made of bits of liver, meat and bran was also fed to them. A spring next to the ponds kept the ponds from freezing in the winter. When the fish were two pounds they were sent to market. Most of the fish were sold to the local markets and restaurants. As many as 1 million fish were spawned in a season.
Stewart was constantly on the lookout for fish poachers and other thieves. In August of 1872, he was keeping an out for horse thieves that had been stealing horses around Donner Lake. One morning he spotted a man climbing over his fence where Stewart’s horse were grazing. Arming himself, he snuck up on the man, who appeared to be catching something from a willow grove. As he got close, he recognized the man as a reporter with the Virginia City newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. The reporter, an avid fisherman was catching willow flies and intended to steal a few of Stewart’s fish, not his horse.
In 1874, Truckee butcher Joe Marzen purchased the ponds and ran them along with a cattle ranch. Under Marzen’s management, Truckee residents on Sunday picnics were allowed to catch fish for their dinner. The fish raising ponds continued its operation into the 1880s.
During the early 1870s Morgan, Pringle and Hurley ran a trout breeding facility near the Lake Tahoe’s outlet at Tahoe City capable of rearing more than a million fish up to four years old. These trout were for the local and California market.
Another Tahoe fishery was operated by Joseph Todman at Tahoe City. Todman was a builder and operator of steamboats on Lake Tahoe. In 1887, the fishery raised 500,000 trout but not for immediate consumption. These fish were ultimately released into Lake Tahoe to provide for spot fishing for tourists.
Todman acquired spawn, hatched them, and reared them into young trout, until they could care for themselves, then released them to complete their growth. After one year, the facility, operated by James Frazier, was taken over by the California Fish and Game Commission. Eastern brook trout was one of the species raised there.
At Independence Lake, a small fish raising pond at the back end of the lake was built to keep up the trout population of that resort lake. The resort was known for its great fishing for many decades. The commercial fish harvested from Independence were mostly sold in Truckee to restaurants, hungry families and logging camps. In the 1870’s it was run by the resort owner, James Rhodes.
There was also a fish raising operation at Union Mills in what is now Glenshire. Stewart McKay had a sawmill in what is now Glenshire in the 1890’s. After he closed the mill, he converted the ponds into a small fish rearing operation. He hired the seasoned fish expert, James Frazier to run it. These fish were imported from Colorado. It was in operation from 1911 until after Stewart McKay’s death in 1917.
The California Fish Commission established a hatchery for Eastern Brook Trout and native Tahoe Trout in 1882 at Taylor Creek, at the entrance to Fallen Leaf Lake. For several decades the hatchery kept Lake Tahoe and the many smaller lakes in the area well stocked.
In the early 1900s, fish hatcheries for non-native fish were being operated at Tahoe City and at Verdi. They were operated by the California Fish and Game Commission and were raising fish for sport fishing, not the commercial market. Fish from these hatcheries were planted in many Sierra lakes and rivers. The Verdi hatchery was capable of producing 1,200,000 fry a year. In 1910 the Tahoe Hatchery released more than 5 million fish in Sierra waters.
Due to overfishing, river diversions, high sediment loads in the river, competition from the imported species, and sawdust being dumped in the along the Truckee River, the native trout population struggled to survive. The only way that the fish industry provided for markets and recreation was to artificially raise trout. Eventually, the industry could not compete with fish supplies from other regions and disappeared.
Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 582-0893.
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